A New Synth – Korg Volca Kick

The christmas season does have advantages – like receiving gifts which, in the best case, are a Korg Volca Kick.

This latest offering in Korg’s highly interesting Volca series of small, low-priced synthesizers, follows suit on the Beats, Bass, Keys, Sample and FM. “Kick”, so that means it can only do kick sounds, making it a one-trick pony? Let’s find out.

General Properties

Like all volcas, this one comes in a box about the surface of a phablet, and about as thick as a XLR connector. All connectors and UI components are placed on the surface: connection-wise we get a connector for the power supply (not included, but six AA batteries are), Sync In and Out, a MIDI In DIN connector, and the output with a headphones symbol, like the sync connectors in the dreaded 3.5mm format.

On the bottom, you get a set of 16 buttons, which work as step and faux-keyboard buttons, and above that knobs for the synth parameters, main volume, and buttons for operation. Apropos synth parameters: all of those can be controlled via MIDI CC and by the integrated sequencer.

The Sound Engine

This is what I’m most interested in, and also the part that makes this Volca interesting. Below is a diagram which I’ve tried to reverse-engineer from Korg’s explanations, as well as my experiences.

Kick_Schematic.jpg

Perhaps the most interesting find is that we have three filters (blue boxes): one in a resonating configuration, this is our main oscillator and has one parameter, pitch. Note that this also tracks pitch from MIDI notes or from the sequence. Apropos pitch: the lowest one is the A just below a five-string bass guitar (27.5Hz), which is deep enough for most bass drum and also bass synth applications. It’s got its own envelope for pitch, with depth and time as parameters: giving you from a simple oscillating MS20 filter (which ends up producing something like a triangle wave) over the typical synth bass drums to deep synth toms. The Bend can also be inverted, so the pitch goes up from its starting value to where it lands as governed by the bend parameter. Note that this envelope is in effect an inverted one-stage envelope with time its only parameter: it starts at maximum level and then falls of as controlled by time.

The second filter is a lowpass which filters a pulse or another form of high-bandwidth trigger. Two parameters: level, for the level of the click, and colour, essentially the cutoff here, and there’s a parameter region where it starts to resonate a little.

Next in the signal flow is a distortion-kinda stage, with one parameter “Drive”, and then another (MS20) lowpass, with one parameter “Tone”. So although this filter is more of a static affair, it is a proper synth filter, not just a simple high-shelf EQ, so you can well use it to put some life onto sustained notes. Sustained notes for a kick drum?

That brings us to the amplifier, or rather its envelope. This is a two-stage (attack/decay) envelope, but with a twist: via the configuration option “Sustain”, this can be set up to remain at full level after completing the attack stage for as long as the (MIDI) note lasts. And with that (and a MIDI keyboard or sequencer), this kick drum generator suddenly turns into a unique monosynth.

Sequencer

The sequencer does what you can expect from such a comparably simple device: it can record and store up to 16 16-beat sequences, together with CC changes, chain those, and do some realtime modifications (like stutter effects, or putting all parameters into random mode). The sequencer also syncs to analogue sources/destinations via the sync in/out connectors, and also to MIDI clock/transport signals (but doesn’t send those, obviously – no MIDI out).

There’s no velocity (neither from the internal sequencer, nor does it seem to react to it via MIDI) – a workaround being the accent parameter for each step, which together with being able to sequence the corresponding parameter (i.e. how strong the accent is) allows for some dynamic range, let’s say from forte to mezzopiano. Interestingly, “Accent” doesn’t make the accented notes louder, but the others softer.

So what is it worth?

While the Kick can indeed produce a wide spectrum of analogue kick and bass tom sounds, it can do much more, and doubles well as a bass synth, and, to a degree, also as a acid-like lead synth. What’s especially beautiful is while it truly feels analogue, it offers the precision you like if working with pitch bends etc. in a tonal context – semtiones are really semitones, and not approximations dependent on the current weather conditions.

The 3.5mm connectors are a pain – and while Korg does ship the thing with a short (ca. 30mm) cable, I’d rather have preferred a handy adapter to proper connectivity (like to 6.25mm).

If I had to name something that is missing, it’s (again, just as with the MiniBrute) the lack of proper MIDI velocity control, although a partial workaround is available here.

And with all that said: this is a thing with a unique sound engine that can work well in at least two regimes (kick drums/bass toms, as well as bass synths), and it sounds fun, both on its own and if you play it together with typical competitors (e.g. Analog Rytm for bass drum, or something like the aforementioned MiniBrute for bass synth).

And now that I mentioned those competitors, let’s not forget that it costs less than a third of a MiniBrute, or about a tenth of an Analog Rytm.

In Summary:

This should not be your first synthesizer, maybe not even your first analogue synthesizer. If you already have one or the other analogue monosynth, and got the rest of the drumkick covered, don’t want just another synth resembling a cross between a Mini and a TB303, or just wnat to enjoy yourself for a good price – get this!

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